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tv   QA Ted Widmer  CSPAN  November 26, 2018 5:59am-7:00am EST

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the process unfold on c-span. >> c-span, where history unfolds daily. in 1979, c-span was created as a public service by america's cable television companies. today, we bring you unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house,, the supreme court, and public policy events in washington, d.c. and around the country. c-span is brought to you by your cable or satellite provider. ♪ ♪ this week on "q&a" with ted widmer.
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host: who was martin van buren? mr. widmer: good question. a lot of people think we need to ask that question. he was the eighth president of the united states. he is often forgotten. his presidency was only four years. there were bigger personalities before and after. but i argue that he was a pretty important guy. his presidency was not a big success. but he read shaped the political landscape around him. he led an interesting life. i wrote a book that i was really excited to write. host: why did you begin in sorrento, italy? mr. widmer: that is where he went to write his biography. -- his autobiography. presidents did not do that then. but now it is almost required by law. that you write a long set of
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memoirs. it's not but everyone does it. he was the first one to do that. he went to a foreign country. italy to gather his thoughts , about his long career in office at many levels. he never actually finished the autobiography. he wrote a lot but he did not wrap it up. it did not come out until 1919. a time when pretty much everyone forgot who he was. i thought that was interesting. he went to a foreign country to remember all that happened to him. host: what impact did it have on -- host: what years was see president? 1837- host: what impact 1841. did it have on him if any that his father was a tavern owner? mr. widmer: i think a lot. in later american history it
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became very desirable to have a difficult upbringing. it proves that you overcame obstacles. you had strong character but most of the early presidents were pretty comfortably raised in wealthy circumstances. he was not. he grew up in a crowded tavern in upstate new york. tenderhook, new york. -- kinderhook new york. in columbia county. you could call them lower middle class but they were ethnically different from earlier american presidents. he was a dutch-american. he spoke dutch before he spoke english. for all of these reasons i found him an interesting, new character in our political story. host: how long did he live in kinderhook. mr. widmer: he lived there his entire childhood. he went away to some school but he did not go to college.
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he began practicing law in nearby towns. he was in hudson, new york, briefly. in stature and became a more successful lawyer at the very early age he ran for local office. he began to spend significant time in albany. which wasn't that far away. then he followed all the steps of an ambitious person. he went to new york. he went to new york very early and ultimately to washington where he was secretary of state, vice president, and finally president. host: where did he meet his wife? mr. widmer: in his hometown. she was his second cousin. it was a tradition in the van buren family to meet someone who was close to you and make that person your spouse. she died.
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before he became president so he was a widower. which was another way he was different from his predecessors. host: how young was he when they got married? mr. widmer: 25. host: what was the relationship between his boys and him for the rest of his life? mr. widmer: very close. they were all very close. his oldest son, abraham, was married to a woman named anjelica, who became the acting first lady during his presidency. she was the official hostess of the white house. there was a feeling of young people and conviviality during his presidency that was also interesting. he is not that young but he has the strapping young sons around. one of them, john van buren, was a political talent in his own way in the 1840's.
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and later in martin van buren's career, he gets pulled toward anti-slavery. that is a crucial point in all of his career. this was an unbelievably sensitive topic. where do you stand on slavery? the 20 different pressure points inside of that topic. he was always trying to manage the division between north and south. and for most of his career he did it pretty well. but his career began to fall apart as the compromises fell apart. his son, john, was an ardent anti-slavery politician and pulled his father with him. i found that moving. host: describe him. what did he look like? how big was he? mr. widmer: he was not a tall man. he was 5'6". most of the early presidents
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were quite tall. washington struck his peers as a giant. madison was short. jefferson is tall. monroe was tall. martin van buren was 5'6". he was a little roly-poly also and he was balding. i don't know if it was in compensation but he had a couple of enormous sideburns. they were not yet called sideburns. as i'm sure you know they were , named after a civil war general. who wasburnside governor of my home state, rhode island. he was slightly funny looking guy with a lot of facial hair going on. he had a cherub at face with a lot of facial hair. a kind of plump body. he did not fit the conventional idea of what a president looks like. host: you said he was quite a dresser? mr. widmer: he was a very sharp dresser.
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that story, like so many in my research, seemed telling. as a young man, he grew up pretty impoverished in the household of his father, the tavern keeper. but he was able to apprentice to a wealthier lawyer in his hometown. after his first day of work, the lawyer reprimanded him for not looking quite as good as he should. the next day, martin van buren showed up impeccably dressed, wearing the same outfit the lawyer had been wearing the day before. the rest of his career, he kept a very careful eye on his appearance. careful is a word often associated with martin van buren. the reason it is telling and somewhat moving is he was trying to keep up with people who had more advantages than he did.
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it was later used against him to withering effect during his presidency when he was becoming unpopular for a few different reasons. it was a tough economy. the panic of 1830 seven hits -- 1837 hits almost immediately after he becomes president. and this growing sectional divide over slavery. nobody can control. and his best that he is -- and his fastidious appearance began to strike his enemies as a vulnerability. there was an incredibly harsh speech on the floor of congress in 1840 denouncing martin van buren for his fastidious appearance. and he had just asked for an appropriation from congress to do some landscaping of the white house grounds. it needed it. but he had asked for fancy flowers to be planted and
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undulating hills for the flowers to be planted on. and a congressman from pennsylvania took him into town reading features of the bill and , comparing the fancy new names for flowers with the fancy way that martin van buren looked. in a time of depression it was a pretty effective attack. host: what was his personality like? mr. widmer: relaxed, easy-going. he always struck people as unruffled even in hard political conversations he would keep his temper. andrew jackson, who was president when martin van buren was vice president, was in many ways his mentor. they each mentored each other in some ways. jackson was famous for going off the handle all the time. van buren smoothed the edges of jackson.
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he had good relationships around washington. a word often linked to him was imperturbable. he seemed like he could not be riled up. at the time of a growing debate over slavery, that was an accomplishment in itself. host: how was he elected to the senate from new york? mr. widmer: he was a very interesting political tactician. he always was interested in extending suffrage. suffrage was not nearly as widespread in our earliest history as we might think. we often want to go back to the times of the founding fathers to improve our democracy, but in fact a lot of people could not vote in those early decades because they did not own enough land or they did not have enough wealth. van buren was always open to more suffrage.
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there were interesting questions about race connected to this. basically he wanted almost any , white male to be able to vote no matter how much money he had. that was somewhat radical for the time. most of those people then voted for him. those were his people throughout his career. this kind of lower middle class. they were always behind him. especially in the north. interestingly he accepted blacks , voting but he attached a property requirement to it. which made it very difficult for most african voters to be eligible. -- african-american voters to be eligible but still in theory they could vote. according to the rules he was introducing. which was not possible in the south. he was in some ways and -- not always but an advocate
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for racial progress. host: you say in his main speech in the senate he almost had a nervous breakdown? mr. widmer: he did. he was never comfortable. , he for his preparation never felt that confident as an orator. he was more comfortable in back room deals which is part of our politics, too. he was an early model of the political thought and when he had to stand in congress and make his first speech, he fell apart. he came back later and made plenty of speeches that were perfectly fine. his inaugural address as president was perfectly fine. not many people would remember his speeches for especially vivid turns of phrase. his writing could be ok at times. his correspondence could be direct. he had a sharp eye for politics. he could describe things quickly
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and memorably. host: who was john calhoun and what was his relationship with martin van buren? mr. widmer: calhoun is a very important senator. one of the most important senators in our history. from south carolina. he was an early nationalist. that is not always remembered. but in the time of the war of 1812, he was ardently for the defense of the united states against england. for war measures he strengthens the national government. he was for a unified approach. north, south, and west all fighting together against this common enemy. but beginning in the early 1830's he changes a lot and becomes the most prominent defender of states right.
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he is the beginning of a model that we see throughout history of very strong southern senators with a lot of seniority who do not like the federal government telling them what to do. as it is so often the case in our history race was connected , to a lot of his feelings. he was an extremely strong defender of slavery. more and more over the course of his life. and he wanted to be president. a lot of people thought he would be. he was a formidable intellect. interestingly he had gone to , yale law school. a northern school even though he was a southerner. he could debate anyone. he could write well and speak well. but he was increasingly being pulled by his own demons and by the demons of the south toward an extremely rigid proslavery stance. as he was finding himself near the top of our political system
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in the late 1820's, he found martin van buren blocking his way. their rivalry holds and it a lot of the seeds of the civil war coming. it is still a long ways away but van buren is a northerner and calhoun is a southerner and they just irritate each other. host: where they in the same party? mr. widmer: that helps to form the democratic party in the middle of the 1820's. historians sometimes get jefferson the credit for founding the democratic party. but what jefferson had founded had turned into kind of a nonparty in the 1820's. the old federalist party had mostly disappeared. there was a series of virginian presidents. there really was not a two-party system anymore. after the controversial election
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of 1824, it leads to congress anointing john quincy adams as president. some new people get together to start a new party. van buren is really the leader of that. so i call him the inventor of the modern democratic party. he and calhoun our allies at that point. they both decided that andrew jackson, who won the popular vote in 1824 but did not could -- but did not get the presidency, that he is the perfect horse for them to bet on for the next campaign. so they pool their resources and formed the modern democratic party around jackson. calhoun becomes the first vice president for jackson. he's the first vice president for jackson but they get in all kinds of arguments including an early version of a sex scandal in washington. it put them on opposite sides of each other.
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then buren and zepp largely winning those arguments. andrew jackson, who grew up in tough circumstances of his own, sees in van buren a kind of kindred spirit and begins to direct his attention to van buren. selects him to be his second vice president and ultimately his successor. calhoun loses all of those early struggles and is furious for a long time. host: what is the story of calhoun depriving van buren of of being minister to england? mr. widmer: after they got into all these arguments, including a very bitter one over a woman in washington named peggy eaton, who has led a kind of life of promiscuity.
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at a time of growing social until he is nest in washington -- pun tillie s&s -- pontilliousness, a lot of the wives of the cabinet members, really started to look down their noses at this woman. and banish her from their social events. van buren, who was a widower and who grew up in a tavern, sought no reason to disapprove of her. he invited her to socialize with him. which she did. and this kind of social rupture happened in washington. jackson's cabinet was divided into the people who would talk to this woman and the people who would not. jackson's wife had just died before he became president. some felt that one of the reason s she died was that she was very happy with press accounts of -- she was really unhappy with press accounts of their possibly
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adulterous marriage. they might've gotten married before she was legally free to get married. so jackson was in no mood to tolerate social disapproval. especially toward a woman. so he sided with van buren. to make things easier van buren , resigned as secretary of state. then he was nominated to be minister to england. "minister" was the word we use back then instead of ambassador. and his appointment got tied up in the senate. calhoun knew it would. president, he was able to cast the deciding vote and he his formerinst friend van buren and he famously said it will kill him, he will never kick. that was supposed to be the end of van buren's career. but the opposite happened. he came back stronger than ever.
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deadun had killed him too and as vice president. calvin was very angry for a long time. a lot of the growing debate around slavery was tied up in these personal aspirations. they both wanted to be president. host: you say in the book that there were 17 million people in the united states. that's when van buren was active and there were 13 slave states and 13 free states? mr. widmer: yes. it was balanced for a long time. that is what expansion into the west is so crucial. it really was the undoing of the union. it was the inability of north and south to agree on how slavery would expand west but even before kansas and nebraska in the there is an intense 1850's, anxiety over texas. it becomes an independent republic just before van buren becomes president. that is in a lot of southerners,
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1836. including calhoun, one texas to come in as a slave state. one of the reasons everyone is nervous is because texas is so big it could in theory be five slave states. there was a feeling that they might inundate the senate. five states, 10 votes. there are already a lot of protections for the southern way of life built into the constitution. the 3/5ths clause. this was gamesmanship by calhoun. he was a smart southerners senator trying to game the system. they already had most of the supreme court justices. a lot of the officers who worked in the senate and house were southerners. it's a southern city, it always has been. the north was starting to feel some resentment. the north is gaining every 10 years. the census is counting how many people live in the north. the number of free and slave states might stay the same but the population is growing very rapidly in the north.
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and van buren is aware of that. calhoun is aware of that. they are all try to figure out how to translate this into political power. van buren has some good moments when he figures it out better than calhoun. that's how he becomes president. calhoun doesn't give up easily. when an economic depression hit van buren, he was we can thately and calhoun use including trying to bring texas and to make van buren look ineffectual. which he did as president. the rivalry between these two very intelligent man is a fascinating feature of american life for 30 years. host: where did you grow up? mr. widmer: providence, rhode island. host: what were your parents doing? mr. widmer: they were both academics. they taught chinese and russian history. they taught at universities in
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new england. i grew up around books, but they were mostly in languages i could not read. i also love the books and i will never forget when i was eight years old i came on a train with my dad to washington. it was a sleeper car. you cannot do that anymore from providence. i got up on -- i got on in the evening and walk upright across the street from union station. i walked into statuary hall. which you could do back then without in the security guards. it was an immersion into american history. i have the taste and i never lost it. host: how did you pursue being a historian. mr. widmer: it's kind of a boring answer, but i always had access to good libraries. there were good city and town libraries and the communities i lived in.
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i remember we spent a summer in middlebury, vermont. which has a good language institute. i got my first public library card there. i am a big fan of public libraries. the andrew carnegie vision. then i went to elementary schools and high schools and universities with great libraries. providence has a small, independent library. anyone can join it and it has a lot of 19th-century books in it. i am a fan of stack access. if you can walk into a stack and touch a book from 1850, that is a big feeling. that's exciting. it's a hands-on feeling. it makes you feel like abraham lincoln is in the room with you. i always wanted to do a book on lincoln. this was kind of a preparatory one. i talk about lincoln a couple of times in this book.
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but now i am working on a book about lincoln and his two week train trip to washington to become president. it took me a while but i've gone back into that original train trip for me that brought me to washington and finally a book by lincoln -- about lincoln. host: how many years did you spend at harvard and how many different degrees of you get there? and how did you get in? mr. widmer: i'm not sure how i got in. i'm not sure i would get in now. both of my parents i graduate degrees from harvard. back then it seemed easier. i was a very hard-working student in high school. they had grown up partly in cambridge. i think all of that helped. i went there for four years of undergrad and eight years of grad school. after i got the phd, i stayed in taught. it is the kind of place you can
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get comfortable, maybe even too comfortable. in the summer of 1997, i had an extraordinary opportunity to work for the government. i had been studying political history for a while. i never quite so myself working in politics. i volunteered as a young person. i had voted for both republicans and democrats earlier in my life. but in 1997, the clinton white house offered me a job as a speechwriter. so i left harvard. i became a speechwriter for almost four years. it was thrilling to be in washington and see politics in all of its messy glory. i think it helps my history writing, too. it gives me sympathy for people like van buren, who made mistakes, but was always in the
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arena fighting hard for what he believed in. i think he moved the ball forward for what democracy is. the idea of representational government. host: how often did you advise bill clinton on what to read? mr. widmer: he did not need any advice. he was a voracious reader. we would prepare speeches for him but then no one would know what he would say. some of the best parts were when he would speak off-the-cuff. he would mention recent books he had been reading. classics of mid-20th-century history. in fact one reason i was able to , write a book on martin van buren was that arthur m.
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schlesinger, jr. was around the clinton white house. he contributed to speeches. he received an award one night. i met him and he was a hero of mine. he was a jacksonian historian as well as a historian of 20th-century politics. there were all kinds of writers. clinton was famously friends with gabriel garcia marquez and toni morrison. she called him our first black president. there were a lot of novelists and historians and filmmakers floating around the clinton white house. for someone who had been immersed in books as a grad student, it was interesting to see these living libraries walking by. host: after you did speechwriting for bill clinton, what did you do after that? mr. widmer: a lot of different things.
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but always close to colleges and libraries and politics. i worked for a number of years at washington college in maryland. a very old college. it's on the eastern shore. in 1782 and i helped to start a new center for american history and politics. and experiential approach to studying history. to getting out of the classroom and meeting practitioners, people leading interesting lives. we had some really exciting programs bringing in foreign students to learn about our history. we worked hard to study african american history as well as more familiar history of the small maryland town.
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host: you created a george washington prize in 2005. you gave it to ron chrenow. mr. widmer: i am glad you mentioned that. washington college was very proud of its association with george washington. he had given the money to found the college. so starting that prize was really fun. it was the george washington book prize. it is given at mount vernon. that was an exciting time because hamilton was so obviously a breakthrough book. well before we became -- it became what we all know now, a thrilling broadway musical.
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i liked the feeling that a founding father can rise a lot and currency. our past is set in stone. our past isn't just set in stone. they rise up and down in reputation. as you know, because you are so generous to us who write political biographies because he bring us on your show. hamilton was somewhat forgotten. he was not that well known. he's on the $10 bill but if he wasn't a president he died , young. but he roared back to life. thanks to a single book. that night was wonderful. i talked a lot with ron about why he wrote that book. i still cannot get tickets to the show, if he is watching right now. i feel in a small way we help about book achieve the high level of recognition it has. host: how did martin van buren
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gets chosen to be vice president get elected did he as president? who did he run against? mr. widmer: he was in politics young enough that he saw hamilton in action. he was smart and ambitious. he was drifting down the hudson river to new york city to see if he could get a future career there. he saw hamilton speak a number of times. he became friends with one of hamilton's sons. and told him out impressive his father was. he spent a lot of time with aaron burr. that was hamilton's murderer. there were even rumors martin van buren that may have been the illegitimate son of aaron burr. no one will ever know.
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john quincy adams once wrote in his martin van buren diary that looked a lot like burr. and he acts a lot like him. he is always trying to organize factions and get southerners and northerners and political alliances. -- in political alliances together. that is how you build a political party. you can call it sneaky or party building. van buren also met jefferson and in the 1820's when he started to think of a great national party. he went to monticello and strategized with his hero over a couple of days. he loved visiting jefferson. he used his time in the senate to meet a lot of people from different regions. he met virginians especially. that was where the idea of the modern democratic party began.
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a new york-virginia alliance. van buren pulls in new york, which has a ton of electoral votes. if you want to win the election you need new york. this is how the new party is going to work. thomas ritchie and he become friends. in their letters to each other, you see the blueprint for system -- blueprint. they pick andrew jackson as their candidate. jackson wins. he is grateful to van buren. and after all of the social turmoil in the first jackson administration, jackson orchestrates the nomination of van buren as his vice president. at that point, calhoun is out. van buren is in. he is very useful to jackson. they are a real alliance.
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they are a president and vice president who really see eye-to-eye. they'd not just produce a winning campaign but they form a philosophy of government. the democratic approach to government. which is about opening up the electorate. letting the poorer people vote. distributing benefits to them. smashing special privilege where they can find it, like the bank of the united states. jackson decides that he does not like it and refuses to renew its charter. van buren supports that. that was a pretty big deal. there is an important detail signs, that jackson strikes down a road building project in kentucky. van buren is all over the policy
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of jackson's presidency. the two of them are really integral to each other's success. but when he is on his own, it is harder for van buren. he needs jackson, too. host: how significant was the panic of 1837? the first year he was president? mr. widmer: huge. it wiped out all the good feeling of his early weeks as president. almost from the day he became president, there are tremors in the air and in the entire commercial system. it's basically collapsed in a way we had not seen to that extent. there had been tremors earlier. the panic of 1819. but this was the worst one. it shook cities, especially. a lot of new banks had been created. under jackson, there was a loosening of financial regulations. a lot of new banks got created
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and there was not tremendous oversight of them. their savings all just flew out the door. their investors lost all their money. a lot of american confidence flew out the window. a lot of people were investing in western lands without going there. there was rampant real estate speculation. it took a long time to get the economy going. a lot of unemployment. a lot of real financial misery in new york city. the beginnings of what we will see in the great depression. food lines and people starving on the streets. a very hard time. host: how long did it last? mr. widmer: basically the entire four years of his presidency. he tried to get through some financial relief. he called special sessions of congress. he proposed a pretty radical financial reform, including the
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independent treasury, which is a kind of early version of the federal reserve system of pulling federal money out of local banks and creating federal holding areas. it was slow in coming. clunky. it did not have an immediate impact. he was very weak politically. he had not won by that much. he was not as charismatic as andrew jackson. when the panic hit, he lost support in the north and south. at the same time, the argue over -- the argument over slavery was becoming more bitter. there had been consensus to not let it out of hand. but when financial misery set in, it opened up the floodgates for a new kind of anger in the slavery debate. that weakened his presidency.
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it was coming from all sides. host: what specifically happened with the slavery issue? it was mr. widmer: as i found in 1837-1841. this book, a lot. there was always a southern mistrust of van buren. the south felt that it owned the presidency and it mostly had, for the most 50 years of american history. mostly tall, handsome, virginia n slave owners who won the south pretty easily and formed friendships with strategic northerners. that system prevailed for a long time. van buren is not that kind of person. he does not look like them. he has the strange foreign thing in his background. he is dutch speaking. he is lower-class. that is why the south does not trust him.
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he had tried to assure the south that he was solid on slavery. so in certain ways, he was opposed to letting the u.s. mail distribute anti-slavery mailings. that was a hot button issue of the mid-1830's. can a northern anti-slavery group send a pamphlet to the south? nowadays we would say anything to go in the mail. but back then it was important that the south say no. you can't even circulate that stuff. vanburen agreed with that. he called it the gag rule. congress could not discuss the abolitionist movement. that was the gag rule. wenther ways, van buren
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along with the southern way of doing politics. he promised in his inaugural address he would never touch the existence of slavery in the district of columbia which was becoming an embarrassment. the united states was proud of its role as a role model for democracy around the world. a lot of english travelers were coming to washington and witnessing with horror the existence of slavery. there were slave auctions right next to this city told of the free self-government. it did not make sense. northerners thought more and more that we have to take some steps to get rid of this. it was embarrassing. vanburen promised the south he would not allow any steps. to eliminate slavery. he promised in his inaugural address was the first time the word slavery was used in an inaugural address. but in another way, he worked with northerners to show that he heard what they were thinking.
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he was not entirely with the south. when texas becomes independent from mexico, it wants to come into the u.s.. the south wants it to come into the u.s. they want those extra , senators. he says no. it is too controversial. we do not want texas in the united states. he kept it out during the presidency. which took some courage. and then after he loses in 1840, , he tries to come back in 1844. and his principled stand on texas saying i don't want texas coming in because of the slavery problem, that cost him his renomination. host: when you go back to that era and you talk about slavery and blacks could not vote, women could not vote, even all white men could not vote, equates that
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-- how did -- equate that with what was in the constitution about equality and freedom. it appears that very few people have that. mr. widmer: the constitution is written by mostly wealthy white landowners. host: the language is all right but they did not apply to people back then. what was the attitude of everybody who was not a white male? mr. widmer: the attitude was generally one of acceptance based on a long history of going along with that philosophy. there were not too many places on earthwork were people of -- on earth where people of different races could vote. there basically were not any. that was largely true for women as well. van buren was ok with black people voting of they owned enough land to meet a requirement. most could not. in theory, he was ok with that. -- i begineresting
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by saying the declaration is more hopeful than the constitution. we do not have one founding document, we have several. we have a declaration of independence that says in no uncertain terms that all men are created equal. that language implies that all people are created equal. there was a lot of enlightenment thinking that went into that and followed it that suggested the u.s. was trying very hard to begin a new experiment in enlightened self-government. in which all people have a stake in their political government. the constitution is a little more rigid. it has hopeful moments, including the bill of rights. the first amendment which strongly implies that all people have a say, maybe not a vote, but they say in these topics.
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throughout our history, we have had the implied power that if we work hard enough to improve our system, political power will eventually flow to all of us. i think van buren was a visionary of sorts. he is not perfect. his flaws are as interesting as his virtues. but he opened up suffrage to a lot of people. in his home state, huge numbers of voters got the boat because -- got the vote because of him. and they stayed with him his whole career. and then he applied that logic to the country at large. host: how big did he lose in 1840? mr. widmer: pretty big. host: who beat him? mr. widmer: william henry harrison. a war hero from indiana. he is a westerner. he basically never said a word. which was good politics back
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then. vanburen campaigns for reelection. we often say that presidents did not campaign for reelection but he did give speeches of the clearly political nature. he wanted it. he was out there giving speeches hoping to be reelected. but he is become unpopular with the panic and the growing nervousness over slavery. harrison was a charismatic war hero. he was a brilliant strategy was created by political handlers around him that included slogans, toys, trinkets, mass-produced objects like whiskey bottles in the shape of a log cabin. because he was supposed to have been born in a log cabin. lincoln would later use that too slogans like "tippecanoe and tyler too."
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his nickname was tippecanoe. there were terrific songs from that election. in a way van buren got out-van , burened. he'd been a political tactician of the highest genius to that point. his enemies figured out a new kind of politics that was even more participatory. they may politics fun. they made fun of him. there were songs that made fun of them. "van, van, he's a used up man." songs that made fun of how he looked. questioned if he was a man or woman. did he wear a corset? there was a lot of the true all -- a lot of vitriolic of language in and he came up on 1840 the losing end. host: independence hall became a clothing store? there was a sign that read we
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hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and they can obtain clothing is that a true story? mr. widmer: yes it is. independence hall has been many things. it once was an art museum. it was a natural history museum. and see place to go in the latest samples of lewis and clark that they were sent it back from their expeditions. it was an early smithsonian. i was doing some recent research on independence hall for the book about lincoln that i am finishing up. amazingly, it was a jail for african-americans in the 1850's after the fugitive slave law was passed. african americans were expected -- who were suspected of running away from slavery could be
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arrested and put in holding pens on the second floor of independence hall for re-exports back to southern plantations. all of our contradictions, all of our greatness as a people and our shortcomings as a people have been on display in that one building. host: talk some about what you are doing now full-time. mr. widmer: i am a distinguished visiting lecturer at the city university of new york. i am in a place martin van buren would recognize. a lot of hard-working young people who see education as a great way to advance their own careers and expand their horizons in every sense. it is a wonderful place to teach. i am more of a teacher than i have been in a long time. i neglected to mention earlier
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that i was director of a couple of libraries in my career. i did that and i loved books and libraries. but i really love teaching. host: how long did you work for hillary clinton and how disappointing was it when she lost? mr. widmer: i did not work on her campaign. i only worked for one year. i worked for her when she was secretary of state. i was not involved in i was 2016. surprised. like everyone i thought she would went pretty easily. i read all the polls. the polls were not even that close. i was living in washington when the election happens. i was working at the library of congress. i respect that your show is pretty nonpartisan. so i should not go there. but i was a democrat and i voted for her and i thought she would win.
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host: historians have helped us get to know alexis de tocqueville. these are his words. why did this passage get your
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attention? mr. widmer: i love tocqueville. i did in pretty often. it is important for americans to remember that he pointed out our flaws as well as our strengths. he loved our strengths. he admired our democracy. he examined it more insightfully than anyone had to that point and maybe even ever than anyone has since. but he did see problems. and they are still with us. we are not good at sustaining attention. we get distracted. in that passage she is saying
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-- she is saying that we are he is saying that we are just so obsessed with our possessions. having the nicest house. having shiny objects. having a second house. he would have totally understood the two car and three-car garage. he saw some danger in that. because what works is our fraternal values. that is not a word you hear that often. "fraternity." the way we look out for each other. there is a word often cited when it comes to tocqueville. "individualism." he apparently used that word for the first time. well-beingut our own but what really impressed alexis to tocqueville is the way we looked out for each other. in small towns, people volunteer
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for local organizations. out,bors help each other anybody can get in and education, education is free, universal for women as well. he has interesting observations about women in education. what really has always come to our rescue is when we think in a united way. when we are not just all about number one. host: england freed its slaves across the empire in 1833. mexico abolished slavery in 1829. when did we? mr. widmer: not until the emancipation proclamation. but that was imperfect. it did not apply to the south. host: why were they ahead of us? mr. widmer: because we had a proslavery bloc that controlled congress. until it seceded. it took the civil war and great
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loss of blood and treasure. that was one of the reasons we could not go on. the mexican war was not a big triumph. it was not just a virtuous triumph via big successful country against a kind of third-rate neighbor. reintroducing slavery into a lot of a country that had got its act together in the limited to slavery. -- and eliminated slavery. host: this is not a new book. you wrote this back in 2005. what did you think of martin van buren? mr. widmer: i liked him a lot more than i would expect. i did not really seek this assignment. i'm not sure anyone would seek it. you are not going to get the big
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numbers writing about martin van buren. but i respected arthur m. schlesinger, jr. and he liked van buren. he gave me the assignment. i could tell. there is a lot of van buren in his book about jackson. he appreciated the political smarts of martin van buren. i thought van buren's failure was interesting. his success was a good thing. he opened up politics to bring in new voices but his failure was interesting. he lost renomination on his views on slavery and about the panic. he got more anti-slavery throughout his career. he might have come back for a second term later in his life but he refused to surrender some principles on slavery.
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he is an interesting example of a former president getting even more interesting. we have seen that. we have seen a lot of former president remaining true to their conscience. going out on a limb on principle topics. he is an early example of someone like that. all the way to the end the, he is interesting and i don't think you can find a president who isn't interesting. that point came home to me as an historian. host: thank you for helping us with our series of presidents. this is from the time series on all of the presidents. our subject is martin van buren, a president of the united states, thank you. mr. widmer: thank you. ♪ >> for free transcripts are to give us your comments on this program, visit us at q&a.org. ♪
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programs are also available at -- as a c-span podcast. caller[captioning performed by e national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] >> sunday, a discussion at mount vernon with historian douglas brinkley and others. that's next to sunday at 8:00 p.m. eastern and pacific on c-span. what's live look at on the c-span networks later today. the british ambassador to the u.s. discusses relations between the u.k. and the u.s. at an event hosted by the hudson institute at noon. military leaders talk about air .nd defense systems it begins at 1:00 p.m. at nine :00 p.m., president
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trump hold a rally in mississippi in support of republican senator cindy hyde-smith on the eve of her runoff election. it a.m., to attempt look at a recent report from the pentagon ordered by the white house on the u.s. manufacturing and defense industrial base. on c-span3 at 5:00 p.m., look at the impact of populism and identity politics with authors and political scholars hosted by the heritage foundation. >> when the new congress starts the democrats will control the house, the republicans the senate. leaders, watchew the process unfold on c-span. this morning, a roundtable discussion on the week ahead in washington with .ahil kapur and ayesha rascoe later, our segment on your money featur

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